Saturday, 5 September 2015

In Search of Somewhere Better

How do we respond to the migrant or refugee problem? What causes this mass migration of people? Why do people move to certain countries or cities?

The reality of inequality became very obvious to me as we travelled to Cyprus and observed patterns within that country. Cyprus has a very long history reflected in the many archaeological sites scattered around the island but it isn't the history that I want to focus on. It is some very simple observations that hold true in many countries and cities around the world. Is it possible that these simple observations reveal a lot about humanity, inequality, and human migration.

The observation that I want to make relates to centralisation of prosperity. On a journey to the Troodos mountain and the Kykkos Monastery, we stopped at a small village, Omodos. It like many other small villages has its monastery with its painted icons. Although the district produces wine, what dominated the shops was lace and embroidered fabrics. The things that tourists would purchase. We could have been like many tourists and walked through the main square to the monastery and then back to the carpark. Two bus loads did this while we were there but we were interested in the lace so explored some of the side alleys.

Here we were enticed into a shop run by an elderly couple who seemed to be well into their retirement years. We were the tourists with the money they needed to survive or at least that was how it felt. There was almost the appeal of “buy this” as we looked around. Although we brought a small item, I couldn't help feeling that our miniscule offering didn't really add anything to their prosperity or ability to survive. They weren't on the main street although they were not far from the main entrance to the monastery. Most of the shops and cafes that we walked past seemed more geared for the tourist than the local citizens so I wondered how these people survived away from the tourist trade. Troodos Resort at the top of the mountains also had this feel but maybe we never really went into the village. Even at Kykkos monastery, this feeling of tourist focus seemed obvious. The community seemed to rely heavily on what came from outside and not what was produced locally. How really did these communities operate? Was there an envy for the tourist who spent in their shops? Could these people afford to travel as we were? Could they enjoy some of the items that I carried with me as I explored their streets and enjoyed their produce? How would I feel if my village was invaded by bus loads of tourists seeming to have what I didn't have access to?

Although that journey left lots of questions about the local economy, it was the difference between the area around our hotel and the old city around the castle that really made me think. We had two meals in the cafes around the castle but we tried to support the local restaurants around our hotel. One small shop that made crepes and sold ice cream seemed to be very popular with the locals. Around this shop, there seemed to be some a community spirit which was enjoyable to experience. But in other local restaurants, we seemed to be the only customers and we wondered how they survived. There was no brisk tourist trade here or even local trade. How could they survive on serving one or two meals per night?

In contrast, on the nights when we went to the restaurants around the castle, they were packed with people and the trade seemed really brisk. It seemed obvious that this area around the castle was the place to have your restaurant business if you wanted to survive but this left me thinking about migration trends and the way some areas of a city or some cities seem to be the focus of growth ahead of others. I am not going to argue that all businesses around the castle prospered in Limassol but it seemed rather obvious that if you wanted a prosperous business then this was an area of the city where you needed to be. You might get more open views in the restaurants away from the castle. It might even be quieter and more relaxing but you didn't get the patronage, the flow of money that would make your business prosper. Is this difference the quality of food or service? There was better food presentation in the busier restaurants but that small crepe restaurant served good food and had a much nicer atmosphere and a patron who was more welcoming, friendly, and remembered you from your last visit. The outer restaurants simply didn't get the patronage and financial rewards of those much busier inner city restaurants.

But we have these patterns where humanity centralises activities. In New Zealand the most popular city is Auckland and in the UK, it is London. This centralisation is reflected in costs, including house prices, the size of the population, and businesses. People flock to these cities believing that there they will have greater opportunity. These are the hubs of activity. Sometimes, you don't have to go far from the centre of these cities to see the inequality generated. In fact prosperity and poverty seem to develop side by side. Although other cities have some degree of prosperity, it is clear that there is a huge centralisation of wealth within these key cities and in the nations.

What about the more major migrant or refugee problem? Why isn't resolving the conflict or just getting away from their war torn countries enough? Why do they seek to migrate to other countries such as Germany or the United Kingdom? It isn't any European country but rather specific countries that are the focus of the migration. The wars and instability in the home countries of the migrant people certainly makes it easier to consider packing up and risking all for what seems like greater prosperity in western nations. However, the basic problem is that of inequality whether financial, educational, or in opportunity. In the same way as there is more likelihood that a restaurant situated around the Limassol castle will prosper or there is greater chance of prosperity in a major city, so there is apparently a greater chance of prosperity in certain countries (US, Germany, UK, ...) around the world and these countries that appear prosperous fight to retain their status and position. They seek to shut out those seekign the benefits of this perceived prosperity.

If we want to resolve the world's problems, the international refugee / immigration crisis, or the local centralisation of wealth, we have to change the way we think about prosperity, economics, and equality. We also need to reconsider what prosperity or a quality of life really means.

Monetary reform alone won't solve these issues. Monetary reform may make it easier for governments to fund activities in struggling communities. Monetary reform may even allow governments to address environmental issues. But if we really wish to have permanent solutions to the problems that surround us, we have to consider our framing stories that drive our understanding of prosperity and wealth distribution.

Inequality isn't new. Migrant's fleeing war torn countries or persecution are not new. Even some of my ancestors fled persecution in Europe for a better life in America. There have been the poor houses or work houses for the poor and outcastes of society. Those that ended up in these didn't do so because they lacked skills. Some ended up there simply because their skill or trade was seen as no longer needed. I have personally experienced this insult from recruitment agents as the computer industry moved from mainframes to personal computers, only for me to prove to them that their attitude is wrong and that despite learning my computing craft in Fortran, COBOL, and other long forgotten languages, I could adapt my skills and knowledge to the new environments, languages, and paradigms. Yet, I know our current graduates run into the same barriers that I have experienced in forty years of involvement in a supposedly changing computer industry. Humanity has a habit of framing someone's value by their current job or situation and not by their potential.

We also reward people not by their need but some formula of greed or perceived value. As a result in an organisation, a CEO can be earning hundreds of times more than the worker who actually delivers the product. Is the CEO more essential that the worker on the shop floor? Is such disparity in incomes really justifiable? Why do we think a sports or entertainment star or fashion model is worth millions while a farmer or farm labourer or factory worker who ensures there is food on our table or produces the goods we desire isn't even worth what they need to live?

These disparities are the result of our framing stories. The stories that help us to decide what is valuable. They are not the result of perceived differences in skills or some unchangeable force of nature. We don't seek to reward for the ordinary or the essential, for what people need to do in order for others to live. We see value rather in entertainment, gambling in financial markets, and other parasitic industries that deliver no real value but help turn the wheels of money and debt.

If we return to the refugees, those living outside the major cities, those running their businesses away from the central business district, the couple who would seek to retire, we don't see these people as being of value even though they are necessary for all of us simply to survive. Rather we focus on earning money, protecting what we have from those who haven't. We in effect race to our own self destruction.

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